Would Nibbana be Possible if Impermanence is the Cause of Suffering?

1. I recently received a very insightful email from Mr. Lance Potter. Before getting to his email, let me provide some background (Of course I would give the name of the commenter only with his/her consent).

“yadaniccam tan dukkham, tan dukkham tadanatta”

  • This phrase is translated in most current Theravada literature (including the Sinhala translation of the Tipitaka; see, Samyutta Nikaya – 3, p. 3 of the Pali/Sinhala Tipitaka ) as:

“if something is impermanent, suffering arises, therefore ‘no-self’” 

  • In that post, I discussed some inconsistencies arising due to such a translation. I also pointed out that the phrase is consistent if one takes the correct interpretations of anicca and anatta, i.e., “that one cannot maintain anything to one’s satisfaction in the long run” and “(therefore) one is truly helpless in this rebirth process”.

2. Let me quote the relevant text from his email:

“The line of reasoning that says that anicca means simply impermanence and that impermanence leads to dukha seems weak to me. The weakness lies is an apparent missing link. Logically, there must be an intervening link, a necessary link, between impermanence and dukha. That link would be the actual cause of dukha. If the cause of dukha were simply impermanence, then no one who awakened, not even Buddha himself, would experience a reduction of dukha. This is because the condition of impermanence in samsara remains unchanged whether one is awakened or not. In awakening, what changes is attachment to impermanent conditions of samsara, not impermanent conditions themselves. 
Put another way, one could say that if anicca means simply impermanence while ignoring the link between them, then Buddha’s awakening and his subsequent reduction of dukha would mean that impermanence as a condition of samsara was reduced. Everyone would have experienced simultaneously a sudden change in the condition of impermanence affecting them. 
It was only Buddha’s relationship to impermanence that changed, not impermanence itself. Or, as you say, his perception of the consequences of seeking happiness in impermanent things.
(Highlighting is mine).

3. That is a very insightful comment and I wanted to share that reasoning with others. This is what happens when one does the correct “vipassana” or “insight meditation”. As one thinks deeply about the Buddha Dhamma, one can start seeing any problems in the interpretations.

  • What Lance was pointing out was that since modern science has clearly illustrated that “impermanence” is an INHERENT CHARACTERISTIC of the universe that we live in, there is no possible way to “get rid of impermanence” in order to remove suffering and thus attain Nibbana (that is, if one takes “impermanence” as the translation of anicca).

4. To emphasize that point, we need to remember that whole worlds like our Solar system are completely destroyed and re-formed every few billion years. Furthermore, “impermanence” and incessant change are inherent in anything in our universe as stated by the Second Law of Thermodynamics; see, “Second Law of Thermodynamics is Part of Anicca!“.

  • Therefore, if dukha arises because of the “impermanence”, AND since we need to remove that root cause of “impermanence” in order to avoid future suffering (dukha) from arising, that would be an impossible task. Impermanence associated with anything material CANNOT be avoided, let alone removed, according to modern science.

5. I would like to again emphasize that impermanence is a word associated with PHYSICAL OBJECTS. Such physical objects CANNOT give us suffering. What gives us suffering is OUR CRAVING (or “icca”) for such objects; this is called nicca sanna. In a world that is “anicca“, we have the wrong PERCEPTION of nicca sanna; see, “Anicca – True Meaning“.

  • Note that icca is pronounced “ichchä”, nicca is pronounced “nichchä” and anicca is pronounced “anichchä”.
  • If a house is destroyed by fire, who suffers? Only the owner of the house, who has an attachment to it; it does not cause suffering to others. If it was a run down house, even the owner may not suffer much because his/her attachment to that house would be less. The more attachment we have for something, our suffering would be greater if it is lost or damaged. This is a simple observation, but has profound implications.

6. Dukkha Sacca means that dukha can be removed.  Dukkha in “Dukkha Sacca” means “there is dukha (suffering) in this world, AND it can be eliminated” ; see, “Does the First Noble Truth Describe only Suffering?“.

  • As explained in that sutta with that phrase, the “three characteristics” of this world are interrelated. Not only that, the key characteristic is “anicca“, i.e., nothing in this world can be maintained to our satisfaction in the long run. The sutta says that Dukha (suffering) arises BECAUSE of the nicca sanna we have for things that have anicca nature, and thus the third characteristic (anatta) becomes self-evident, i.e., one is truly helpless since one cannot get rid of dukha (unless one gets rid of the nicca sanna).

7. Thus nicca is a PERCEPTION in one’s mind. Through endless rebirths we thought that we can achieve happiness by acquiring sense objects that provide us with sense pleasures. Thus we keep “craving for such objects”, and believe that they will provide us with happiness; this is the wrong perception of nicca. It is called the nicca sanna.

  • Thus the four stages of Nibbana are attained when one develops the opposite sanna, i.e., anicca sanna in stages, and is complete only at the Arahanthood.
  • If one did not crave for anything in this world, there is NOTHING in this world that one willingly binds to (paticca = “pati + “icca”). If we can stop this paticca process (or willingly bind to things in this world), then there will be no “samuppada (“sama” + “uppada”) or births corresponding such cravings.  Thus according to paticca samuppada, there will be no more rebirths; see, “Paticca Samuppada – “Pati+ichcha”+”Sama+uppäda“. And that is ragakkhaya or Nibbana.

8. Therefore, now we have a possible way to prevent dukha from arising: we need to remove all types of cravings for impermanent material objects from our MINDS.

  • Of course that is easy to be said than done. We attach to things in this world because they provide tangible sense pleasures. No one can deny that, and it is very hard to resist many sense pleasures for which we have had attachments from beginningless time.
  • Thus we have to do it in stages. No one (except a few who have developed required mindset over many past births) can do it quickly.
  • The critical first step to Nibbana is the Sotapanna stage. And that is gained just by gaining the first understanding of anicca, dukkha, anatta.
  • It is hard to believe, but an enormous fraction of our craving for worldly things will be removed at the Sotapanna stage when the realization hits that certain immoral things are NOT WORTH doing for the sake of long-term benefit. That is something that will be ingrained in the mind and one does not need to think about it.

9. It is stated in the Nakhasikha Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya – 2, p. 212 of the Pali/Sinhala Tipitaka) that the amount of defilements that a Sotapanna has left to remove can be compared to the soil one can pick up on one’s fingernail, if the amount of defilements a normal human has is comparable to the soil in the whole Earth; see, “What is the only Akusala Removed by a Sotapanna?“.

  • A short but correct translation of the essence of the sutta is also available online:

Nakhasikha Sutta: The Tip of the Fingernail

  • Since such a large amount of defilements are removed just by getting rid of micca ditthi, it is CRITICAL to get rid of micca ditthi by comprehending anicca, dukkha, anatta. And the key to all three characteristics is to comprehend the “anicca nature” of this world. This is why I keep emphasizing this point at every opportunity.
  • However, it is not possible to grasp the “anicca nature” until one has purified one’s mind to some extent; see, “Starting on the Path Even without Belief in Rebirth” and other posts in the “Living Dhamma” section.

 Also, see, “Logical Proof that Impermanence is Incorrect Translation of Anicca“.

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